Tuesday, December 6, 2011

What Is a Dissertation? Part 6

A Summary.

In this final post of the "What Is a Dissertation?" series, I want to summarize the key points I've tried to articulate over the past month about the work of writing a dissertation. In the second post, I pointed to Jastrow's duck/rabbit illusion to explain the pesky business of trying to simultaneously see the dissertation as an object of inquiry as well as a site for performance. On the one hand, the rhetorical space that surrounds the writing of a dissertation is supposed to be one of inquiry, experimentation, and discovery. The dissertation is a scholar's first attempt at extended research, which is to say part of the value of a dissertation is simply located in its writing. On the other hand, the dissertation is also a ticket of sorts, one that gets us out of grad school and into a tenure-track job. It's a document in which we perform the role of a serious scholar, and as such the project should not be taken lightly.

But I am convinced that dissertation writers who get stuck in the performance frame end up creating not only more stress for themselves, but also more work than is necessary. That is, because the dissertation is a dissertation (see post 3) writers should focus on making the most of the dissertation experience by letting themselves enjoy the process as much as possible.

So, here are the suggestions I've made (in somewhat sequential order) for how to conceptualize the writing of a dissertation as a place for inquiry throughout its development.

  • Even though the "conversation" metaphor is sometimes overused in academic discourse, it really does help to imagine your dissertation as an initial contribution to an existing conversation. As one who has just pulled up a chair to the circle, so to speak, you aren't expected to be an expert. Nor do those with whom you are conversing want to be overpowered by your talk. Your dissertation is a way to introduce yourself and your ideas into the conversation. The trick is to allow yourself the grace to realize these ideas will need further refinement and articulation, which is why you entered the conversation in the first place.
  • A good dissertation is a finished dissertation. Yes, this is another cliche but it is true. Think about those folks you know who have been writing a dissertation for 2+ years. Is there any end in site? They might have an amazing project in theory, but it's not amazing if it's not finished. For this reason, look at the calendar and decide on the date when you want to have a complete first draft of the whole thing. From there, break up the writing and give yourself reasonable deadlines. I offered my own writing schedule as an example, but I'm sure you can ask friends and colleagues who have been through this process to share their schedules with you. Regardless, make a schedule and stick to it. Imagine each deadline as a hurdle you will jump. With each hurdle you pass, you are one step closer to that complete first draft. Whatever you do, though, don't drag the process out.
  • After you have defended the project, give yourself time to let the dissertation sit. Most likely there will be more pressing things going on anyway, but the goal of this time is to put some critical distance between you and your dissertation. Whether you want to turn the diss into a book, mine it for a couple articles, use it as the justification for a related project, or anything else, you first need to attempt to see the forest through the trees. When you are on the job market, for example, the dissertation is a prop you hold up to signal you are a decent scholar because you can finish a long-term project. But remember, the goal of the dissertation was in part simply to write the thing, to prove yourself worthy of the "Ph.D." at the end of your name. But if you want to use the dissertation for a new project, use some of the exercises I've suggested (and others that might get suggested--I'm sure there are lots of them) to re-see your dissertation, to identify those aspects of it most rich with potential.

Now if I can be allowed to leave this series with one final idea, I want it to be this:

You are not your dissertation.

Yes, the dissertation is an important project that heavily shapes your scholarly identity as you transition out of grad school, but don't put too much pressure on yourself to be the [fill in subject of your diss] person. Remember, this is a conversation you entered as a way to test out some ideas. No one says you have to become the host of the party. Moreover, and more importantly, you might be interested in other things. In short, do what makes you happy. That's why we are in this profession, isn't it?

[cue balloons]

Will Duffy teaches in the department of English at Francis Marion University. He writes about rhetoric, composition theory, and public discourse. Learn more about his work at www.virtueeater.com


  1. Thanks so much for an amazing and insightful series, Will. As someone in the midst of this crazy dissertation process I can honestly say that there were moments in each of these posts that caused me to stop making things harder than they had to be, and pushed me to find the most clear and concise ways of articulating my most difficult ideas.

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